February 9, 2004

Where Does all the Food Go?

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Cornell Dining has earned a reputation for high-quality freshness and variety that exceeds most other colleges and universities nationwide. Even Cornell’s vegan, vegetarian and kosher students have choices to accommodate their dietary needs. Anyone who has eaten a late-night dinner at Robert Purcell Community Center knows that the dining halls are never short on food; hot platters come out of the kitchen right up until closing. But what is to become of leftover food at the end of the day?

Though the University has not laid out a specific policy regulating leftover food, according to Colleen Wright-Riva, director of dining services, Cornell Dining has an informed management team that evaluates the quality of leftover items and determines how they can best be used. “Our goal is to cook in small batch sizes often. This ensures the freshest products and least amount of waste or leftovers,” Wright-Riva said.

Cornell Dining has shown concern about minimizing waste. Administrators have organized a system to help ensure that the correct amount of food is ordered and prepared each day.

“Cornell Dining employs six chefs who develop menus and forecast specific product usage from historic information and from customer feedback,” Wright-Riva said. “Our chefs also use a food-menu management system, called FMS, to help track inventories, recipes and waste.”

There is also an hourly staff that works with chefs to adjust menu production throughout the day, according to Wright-Riva. When items are moving either quickly or slowly, this staff instructs the chefs to make more or less of that dish.

Even with all the measures taken by Cornell Dining to reduce leftovers, some amount of waste is unavoidable. Students and staff have made an effort though to offer the food to Ithaca charity organizations.

About 18 months ago, several students and local agency representatives were invited to come and speak to members of dining management about charity. “We actually tracked waste over a period of time to determine if there were opportunities to increase our donations,” Wright-Riva said.

The staff has since tried to set up connections with local organizations to pick up extra food when the quantities warrant it, although no regular charity system has been designed by either staff or students.

“Cornell Dining has partnered with Loaves & Fishes and other local food banks when there are significant amounts of food leftover,” Wright-Riva said. She also pointed out that “there are times when the amount we have is just not large enough to offset the costs of pick-up and delivery.”

However, a donation system in which food is regularly sent to organizations may not be the most viable option. “A lot of the leftover food, like cooked meat and ravioli, wouldn’t survive to get to a charity anyway. The dishes that we throw away spoil quickly, and anything that can be saved usually is,” said Szymon Rozge ’07, an employee of Cornell Dining,

Rozge proposed an alternative donation system: opening the dining halls as a soup kitchen during the last hour before closing every day. “That might be a better and less expensive way to give out extra food,” he said. “In the end we’re just trying to break even financially. A soup kitchen wouldn’t cost us much and I think people would be willing to do it.”

For now, Wright-Riva emphasized that Cornell Dining is doing everything it can to reduce the amount of food that is wasted. But additional charitable measures would require a joint effort between students and the Cornell Dining staff.

Archived article by Missy Kurzweil